TORONTO —The Maple Leafs have a lot happening on the injury front.
Coach Sheldon Keefe announced Wednesday that goaltender Frederik Andersen, who has been out with a knee injury since March 20, will go on a conditioning loan to the American Hockey League’s Toronto Marlies and play in half their game against Manitoba on Thursday.
Meanwhile, Nick Foligno was absent from Toronto’s practice on Wednesday after leaving Monday’s game with an upper-body injury. He will not dress for the Leafs on Thursday against Montreal and is likely to miss Saturday’s tilt as well.
Also expected to be out for the remaining games this week are injured forwards Zach Hyman (MCL) and Riley Nash (knee). Both players were present at practice on Wednesday for the first time since getting hurt, but were wearing no-contact sweaters. Keefe doesn’t believe either will be in the lineup before next Tuesday against Ottawa at the earliest.
Staying patient has been key to Toronto handling injuries all season. That’s been especially true for Andersen, who has had ample runway into his AHL loan.
“Today was an important day for him,” Keefe said of Andersen. “It was his second full practice with us to get through, and all indications are the day went well and he's feeling good. [Going to the Marlies] is just a good way for him to get himself back into it and then things will be reassessed from there.”
Andersen hasn’t appeared in an AHL game since 2013-14. He was in the Anaheim Ducks organization then, and backstopped the Norfolk Admirals in four games before graduating to the NHL full time the following season.
Andersen is currently on Long Term Injured Reserve and can stay there during an AHL loan of up to six days or three games.
He hasn’t started a game for Toronto since March 19, a 4-3 loss to the Calgary Flames. That was the latest in a string of disappointing outcomes for Andersen, who hadn’t looked like himself since missing four games with a lower-body injury in late February.
That defeat to Calgary put Andersen at 2-5-1 coming off the ailment, and the Leafs decided to shut him down again until the knee problem was fully resolved.
Now that Andersen appears to be trending in the right direction, his teammates are hopeful to see him back for one of these final four regular-season games.
“He's an important part of our team and he's going to be an important part of our team,” said Justin Holl, who also returned to practice on Wednesday after missing Monday's game with a facial injury. “So the sooner we can get him going again, the better for us. It's all encouraging stuff for us to see [him at practice].”
The Leafs are counting on Foligno to be a big part of their postseason plans. Toronto acquired Foligno in a trade with Columbus last month and he’s made a near-seamless transition into the lineup, tallying four assists in five games.
The veteran winger was forced to leave in the second period of Monday’s 3-2 overtime loss to Montreal, putting his availability the rest of this week in doubt.
Still, Keefe is confident that Foligno won’t miss a beat with the Leafs when he does get back. The challenge now is adjusting the plan without him for a spell.
"In terms of his own game and how he's feeling with our team and adjusting, I think he’s already past that point and we're in a good place there,” Keefe said.
“I was looking to move things around and try him in some different spots though. [The injury] is going to impact my ability to do that. It also has a trickle-down effect on other lines and coupled with not having [Hyman], that changes our lineup significantly. But I'm just going to take that a day at a time and get Foligno back to full health as quick as we can."
Hyman hadn’t practised with the team since suffering an MCL sprain on April 18. After going through a couple early skating drills, Hyman mostly just observed Wednesday’s session. But his presence still had an impact, as did having Nash with the group.
Nash was acquired by Toronto from Columbus on April 10, in exchange for a conditional seventh-round pick in the 2022 NHL Draft. The trade came just days after Nash sprained his knee, and he was expected to miss at least four to six weeks rehabbing the injury.
Wednesday was Nash’s first opportunity to get on the ice with all his new teammates. Like Hyman, he was more observer than participant, but Keefe made sure to formally welcome the newcomer with a round of pre-practice stick taps.
“We want to be as healthy as we can be,” said John Tavares. “That was Nash's first day out there with the guys, and we want to get him feeling good and more and more a part of the group, and we know how important Hyman is to our team. It was great to see them out there progressing and getting close [to returning]. We really like our team when we've got a full lineup.”
Until everyone is back to full strength, Keefe will continue to tinker. He had Stefan Noesen, another trade-deadline acquisition, on the third line with Alex Kerfoot and Ilya Mikheyev at Wednesday’s practice, but there’s no guarantee he’ll make his Leafs’ debut in Thursday’s game.
Keefe said there are still decisions to be made based on how players are feeling in the morning.
In the midst of all that uncertainty, there is the assurance of playoffs looming. Toronto hasn’t yet locked up the top seed in the North Division and Keefe’s main concern now is keeping his team from thinking too far ahead.
“All we can do is stay focused [on the present],” he said. “But of course it's in the back of the players’ mind, and in the coach's mind for that matter, that you're at that stage where you want the playoffs to begin, and they're not going to. So we have to just [approach it as] every day is a new day and brings an opportunity for us to continue to get better, and we’ve got to focus on that.”